New talents upset status quo

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Published: Sunday 7th September 2014 by The News Editor

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After Stan Wawrinka pushed open the grand slam door at the Australian Open, Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori have blown it off its hinges by setting up the most unlikely final in years.

Wawrinka was only the second player other than Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray to win a slam title since the Australian Open in 2005.

Now, at the US Open, either Cilic or Nishikori, neither of whom are ranked in the top 10, will join him – in the first final since Marat Safin beat Lleyton Hewitt in Melbourne almost 10 years ago not to feature any of the big four.

The signs that this was coming have certainly been there, with Ernests Gulbis, Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov all making semi-finals this season.

The latter two in particular had been touted as the likely first slam finalists from the next generation, but instead it is 25-year-old Cilic and 24-year-old Nishikori who have beaten them to it.

Cilic produced the performance of his life in the last four on Saturday to not just beat Roger Federer, but completely outplay him.

He cited Wawrinka’s breakthrough as inspiration, saying: “I t’s a bit of a change-up year considering all the past years that these top four guys were making to the finals.

“Wawrinka opened the doors for us from the second line and I think most of the guys have now bigger belief that they can do it at the grand slams.

“Kei beat Wawrinka, beat Novak, and Milos, so he’s played an amazing, amazing tournament. I think it’s going to be extremely interesting for the next several grand slams.”

The four-month doping ban Cilic served last season appears to have helped him take his career to a new level.

The Croatian used his enforced time off to work on his game, coach Goran Ivanisevic helping him improve his serve and have faith in his attacking game.

Cilic also developed a harder edge because of the experience – he has always maintained the offence did not merit a suspension and had his initial nine-month ban reduced at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

“It’s going to be a special day for both of us,” said Cilic. “It’s an opportunity for both of us to win a grand slam, to be a part of history. There’s going to be definitely huge emotions on the court.

“We played a couple of times already here at the US Open. Both of those matches were extremely tough and under very difficult conditions.

“We have both different game styles. Kei hits the ball extremely well from the back of the court. I think I’m going to have to just focus on my game to break that rhythm and to try to serve well.”

Nishikori has already made history as the first Japanese player and Asian man to reach a grand slam singles final.

That came courtesy of his stunning four-set win over Djokovic on Saturday, where the world number one struggled to cope with an inspired opponent and hot and humid conditions.

Nishikori’s run is all the more remarkable considering he was a doubt for the tournament after undergoing minor toe surgery.

“I didn’t even know if I should come to New York, so I wasn’t expecting anything,” he said.

“But after playing my first match and second match, I got more confidence in my foot and there was no pain. My tennis was there already. I may have to rest for three weeks before every grand slam.”

Nishikori’s talent has never been in doubt and he may well have made the breakthrough earlier but for physical fragility that held him back.

There has been no doubting the 24-year-old’s strength this fortnight, though, with back-to-back five-set wins over Raonic and Wawrinka preceding the Djokovic match.

Federer said of the two finalists: ” I’m more surprised with Cilic. He’s been around for longer, but he’s really been able to make a nice transition in the last few years in his game.

“Whereas with Kei, I always thought he was an unbelievable talent way back when I played with him for the first time when he was 17.

“He’s beaten myself twice already, other top guys. He was destroying Rafa in the finals of Madrid. He’s shown what he can do, and that’s why with Kei I’m not surprised, really.

“I think it’s exciting for the game to have different faces from time to time. It’s big for Croatia and big for Japan.

“Everybody who gets to this stage of this kind of a competition deserves to be there because they have put in the work and they hoped for the break, and this is it for both of them. I hope they can play a good final.”

Published: Sunday 7th September 2014 by The News Editor

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